New House Ruling on Mobile Device Unlocking Gives Reason for Optimism

by / Monday, 24 March 2014 / Published in Business

As someone who’s enthusiastic about mobile technology, I have always thought that laws that prevented consumers from being able to unlock their own mobile devices are a really bad idea. After all, we live in a capitalist economy where true competition is needed to drive innovation. If someone can’t take their device to another network, what incentive is there for their current network to provide quality service?

I’ve never been someone who cares much about the behind-the-scenes happenings in Washington, but when there are laws in place that prevent us from using technology—the technology we paid for—it the way we want to use it, I feel that a little bit of government interference may be necessary to get things back on the right track.

That’s why I was thrilled to hear the US House of ReprAesentatives had passed a bill to legalize mobile device unlocking without the carrier’s consent. There are still a lot of troublesome details that need to be sorted out, and the bill still has to pass the Senate as well, but it’s great to finally see our nation’s lawmakers stand up for the rights of technology consumers. The decision gives me a lot of reason to feel optimistic going forward.

You may be asking yourself: why does mobile device unlocking matter so much? I assure you that I’m not making a big deal out of nothing here. In the past, mobile devices unlocking was outlawed by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the same piece of law that makes it illegal to remove digital rights management from copyrighted materials like music and e-books. According to the specifics of the DMCA, you could actually be subject to jail time just for unlocking your own mobile device without getting your carrier’s permission.

I think that the DCMA is a classic example of wireless carriers taking advantage of legislation that was enacted for a legitimate purpose—protecting copyright holders from piracy—and using it for their own purposes. It’s unclear exactly how unlocking a mobile device would qualify as copyright piracy, but that’s the way it is currently interpreted.

Things have improved a bit over the years, and the wireless industry has now pledged to do a better job of informing their customers when they are eligible to have their phones unlocked. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, I don’t think that pledge goes nearly far enough: consumers shouldn’t have to wait to get their devices unlocked, and they shouldn’t have to depend on the carrier to do it for them.

The House bill, titled the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, is encouraging because it specifically proposes that mobile device unlocking should be legal whether it is initiated by the device owner or by a third-party organization working on behalf of the device owner. The language in the bill makes it clear that consumers will no longer have to beg their wireless carriers for permission to unlock a device, or pay out big money to get an unlocked device directly for the manufacturer. That’s definitely a good thing.

Of course, not everything in the bill is perfect: the bill doesn’t allow for unlocking for the purposes of “bulk resale”, meaning that businesses wouldn’t be allowed to purchase locked devices directly from consumers and then unlock them in order to resell them. It may seem like a minor point for me to be quibbling over, but I’m opposed to any piece of legislation that would make it harder for consumers to be able to trade in their old devices, get fair compensation for those devices, and then provide used devices that someone else could make good use of. A bill that makes bulk resale legal would also help out from an environmental perspective, as it could keep devices usable for longer, and cut down on the amount of devices that have to be recycled.

In spite of the problems I have with the bill, sometimes you just have to take your little victories when you can get them. The new unlocking bill may not be perfect, but at least it shows that the rights of consumers aren’t being ignored completely.